The tax code is a mess. Even those pointy-headed economists that can bicker about anything (except the gas tax) agree that it is too complicated. They cry in virtual unison that the growth of tax deductions, credits, and deferrals leads to inefficiencies and market distortions (yikes!).
To confirm these fears, we need look no further than the education arena. Do you know how many tax provisions there are designed to support post secondary education and workforce training? It's a long list.
There are tax breaks for contributions to specific accounts and savings plans such as Coverdell education savings accounts, section 529 college savings plans, pre-paid tuition plans, and penalty-free withdrawals from IRAs. Further, there are other tax breaks that cover the treatment of educational expenses. These include the Hope Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, deduction for tuition and fees, and the deduction for interest on student loans. So, that's a count of at least 8.
Many of these overlap and as such they cause a great deal confusion among consumers. Last week the House Ways and Means Commitee held a hearing on this topic and I sent in some testimony that offered my take on the matter.
I’m in favor of serious tax reform. We probably need to consolidate and simplify. That said, we have learned a great deal with the experience of 529 college savings plans over the past few years which provides a blueprint for how to construct an attractive savings platform for education and training. We need to stop adding tax breaks to support savings for a growing number of purposes and spend more energy looking at how to create the institutional supports that maximize savings. I'll gladly make this point again when serious tax reform is put back on the political front burner.